SAMVOA was delighted and honoured to host Roland de Vries and his wife Henriette during October 2013 as SAMVOA Guests of Honour.
(Click on the image to view the gallery)
In his own unique and passionate style, Roland has written the following about his visit to Australia:
AN UNFORGETTABLE ADVENTURE DOWN UNDER
Meeting with the South African Military Veterans Residing in Australia
By Roland de Vries
The term Down Under used in the above title is an informal phrase, which refers to Australia and New Zealand. The expression comes from the fact that countries such as these are located in the Southern Hemisphere ‘below’ many other countries on the globe. Australia is a large country not only in geographical terms, but in heart and soul as well.
In addition to the phrase Down Under the word amazing will be used in abundance when I give my account of a recent visit to captivating Australia performed by your’s truly and his dear wife Henriette. For this I need to thank the South African Military Veterans Organisation of Australasia (SAMVOA – a magic word), who had invited me and Henriette to undertake an extensive tour to their new homeland in October 2013.
I can imagine that the recent publication (May 2013) of my book, Eye of the Firestorm, was part motivation for this invitation as, at their own accord, amazing SAMVOA had arranged for a number of book launches all over: Perth, Sydney; Melbourne and Brisbane. How can I ever fully express my appreciation to them?
The trip was fast and furious, such as for a high-paced mobile operation and included formal mess dinners to be attended, discussion sessions to be held and the many book launches to be undertaken. It was an exhilarating experience, no, magical.
The tour was organised with military precision by SAMVOA’s National Chairman Anthony Macquet and his respective Regional Executives, namely Veterans: Garth Pienaar from Perth Western Australia; Kevin Bowden from Sydney New South Wales; Karl Brown from Melbourne Victoria and Tasmania; Gordon Pugh from Brisbane Queensland and the Northern Territories. This included support by a number of amazing SAMVOA members spontaneously buoyed-up by their families.
It all started with a seminar held in Canberra on 1 October 2013 at the Australian Centre for the Study of Armed Conflict and Society, which is affiliated with the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra.
The seminar was organised by another South African veteran, Dr. Deane-Peter Baker. Deane is the programme coordinator for ethics at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, The University of New South Wales, Canberra, Australian Defence Force Academy. I found many former South African soldiers attending the seminar dressed in Australian military fatigues – amazing. I summarily enrolled Deane into SAMVOA as well. Another good deed done for the day!
I was accompanied to Canberra by my good friend Dr. Abel Esterhuyse of the South African Military Academy, Saldanha. He gave an account of South Africa’s counterinsurgency doctrine and the execution of such operations during the border war. My topic related to the mobile warfare doctrine we used in Angola. Other guest speakers were Professor Michael Evans and Mr. Charles (Chuck) Melson. The topic of the seminar focused on Cold War-Era Military Lessons Learned by studying the bush war conflicts of South Africa and Rhodesia. It was interesting to note that many in the audience did not realise that the South African Defence Force (SADF) had fought a major high intensity conventional battle successfully in southern Angola against staggering odds in 1987/88. Words such as you punched above your weight were used to describe the outstanding performance of the former SADF during a war which had lasted more than 23 years.
Australia is a remarkable country with vegetation not dissimilar to South Africa – even the Blue Gum Trees found there in great quantities. As well as great South African-Australians I may add – including those exceptional ones who had fought in the South African Border War.
There are more than 600 former South African soldiers enrolled in the ranks of SAMVOA. By the way this includes the veterans from New Zealand. SAMVOA furthermore is in the process of establishing strong links, as we speak, with other South African military veterans residing all over the world such as in the United States; Canada; Europe; United Kingdom; Middle East and Asia and; other places in Africa.
It is astounding; all over the world I meet South Africans in leadership positions who have made their mark. Many of them are found in international organisations such as the UNITED Nations, where they contribute to the creation of peace and stability worldwide. This pioneering spirit lies in our genes. I have started thinking that the country of such enterprising people is vested in their souls and not in earth.
SAMVOA IS REMEMBRANCE FOCUSED – LEST WE FORGET
And so is the whole of Australia. What is amazing is that you can visit any of the centres of the Returned and Services League of Australia (RSL), any time of the day and at sunset all will stand to honour the fallen – there is a lesson for South Africa to be learned in this!
To their credit the RSL provides an amazing support structure for SAMVOA. The RSL evolved as a direct result of the camaraderie, concern and mateship shown by the “Diggers” for the welfare of their comrades during and after the 1914 – 1918 War. That ethos of compassion and service remains the motivating influence of the League today. It is an extremely large ex-services organisation with 1500 sub-branches registered throughout Australia serving more than 240,000 members.
In more or less the same vein SAMVOA is a single-rank organisation, as members are not addressed by their former ranks, but as veterans or by their first names. There is a closeness I find amongst them notwithstanding former positions and ranks. This I appreciated. SAMVOA has a remembrance focus and in doing so forges a close fellowship amongst former South African servicemen and woman – these include their families where their children can join as heritage members.
As a remembrance organisation SAMVOA relies on their members to network and attend parades and functions as and when they can to foster their ideals throughout Australia. As their motto so aptly states:
“This Veteran Organisation dedicates itself, in grateful recognition and memory of our countrymen, the Immortal Dead of South Africa, who, at the call of Duty, made the great Sacrifice on the battlefields of Africa, Asia and Europe and on the Sea.”
For this reason one finds South Africans in Australia marching and participating in many different ways in Australia in recognised memorial services and ceremonies, notably: The well-known ANZAC Day and Armistice Day Celebrations.
What amazed me most was a universal message I received from all our South African Military Veterans’ in Australia; all over, man, woman and child: “Come we want to go and show you the Boer Memorial in our city and the place where we attend the ANZAC Day Celebrations…!” They say this with pride in a way that gives you goose-bumps.
Every Australian I met acquainted with SAMVOA told me the following: “We are taking an example from the South Africans, they are always there on time, are the smartest dressed and always march with precision” My heart swelled with pride – well done South African-Aussies!
That is why you had fought outstandingly during the South African Border War. There were other reasons for this as well, namely your tactical prowess, excellent leadership, skill at arms, determination, innovation, kinship and esprit de corps – for the morale is to the physical as three is to one.
It was your generation who had stemmed the military threat on our northern borders for more than 23 years; allowed for conditions to be created for politicians from opposing sides to come to their senses and to opt for peace. As such you had extinguished the flame of armed conflict in Southern Africa and therefore created a better form of peace, notwithstanding the faltering politics in present day South Africa.
Keep it up SAMVOA, at all cost and stay together! Let us remember our fallen, those who were wounded and those living who had served with honour! Every person counted and still counts today and tomorrow! Strength and honour!
THERE IS A PATTERN IN EVERYTHING – WHAT CONNECTS US?
Henriette and I were searching for patterns during our brief tour to Australia, those things which connect us as history passes by. It was amazing, we found it everywhere. In certain instances it happened with abruptness, which at times brought solemn contemplation, spontaneous laughter or profound sadness to the fore.
These thoughts burn like fire keeping our senses alive, as mutually shared events become so clear and irresistible once again. To quote a few examples:
- Any “ambush” I stormed in during my visit I encountered people I knew from our border war era. Even though in many instances more than twenty to thirty years had passed us by. Recognitions in all instances were instantaneous, like exploding grenades. Then there were the many amongst us who could relate instantly to similar experiences shared. The proceeds were both joy and sadness in re-connecting and in remembering the many ups and downs we had shared during our collective pasts. Laughter was in abundance as we pooled our many experiences and stories. There is pure joy to be found in such fellowship.
- Talking about ANZAC, as Henriette and I had the privilege to visit Gallipoli in 2011. The loop was closed for us when we visited the magnificent Shrine in Melbourne, where the ANZAC Day Celebrations take place annually in April. Our tour guide was an Australian Reservist, the amicable Lieutenant Colonel Barrington Ingram and we were accompanied by our friend Veteran Karl Brown. This was a poignant moment for all of us – not too far away from the Shrine nestled the Boer Memorial in a misty shroud.
On the human side I can remember well how Henriette just suddenly burst out crying when we arrived on the beach at Gallipoli in Turkey one crisp early morning in August 2011. Here the fateful landing of the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) took place on 25 April 1915. The atmosphere was overwhelming.
What gripped me and Henriette most were the words that were uttered by the Turkish victor, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1934: “Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives… You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours… You, the mothers, who sent your sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”
It is commendable that Australia and Turkey still commemorate this battle together until today – there is a lesson for Southern Africa in this, especially for a few dyed-in-the-wool soldiers and politicians who still gripe about the past.
This experience made the moment more emotional when Henriette and I could visit Albany in Western Australia with Jason our son-in-law and Melanie our daughter and our two grandchildren Elysia and Danica the following year; as it was from these shores that the Australian forces had embarked firstly for Egypt and then Gallipoli.
Just as the battle of Gallipoli was a turning point in the creation of a proud new Turkey and the rejuvenation of Australia, the battle of Cuito Cuanavale in 1987 was a trigger in a series of turning events paving the way for the creation of a peaceful Southern Africa. Of course there were other pivotal events such as the demise of communism from 1989 onwards, the fact that Namibia could eventually transform peacefully into democracy after the Cubans and the SADF had left and when the Black Nationalist parties were disbanded and Nelson Mandela was freed from imprisonment in 1990 – these were magical things of those times we should well appreciate today.
The words of Atatürk expressed in 1934 to commemorate the battle of Gallipoli should serve as a sobering lesson and reminder to those who are short-sighted and self-centred, still arguing fruitlessly about whom had won or lost at Cuito Cuanavale in August 1988.
In remembrance of the battles surrounding Cuito Cuanavale: 31 SADF soldiers were killed in action by December 1987; close on three thousand guerrilla fighters of UNITA had died in the field; on the Cuban-Angolan side four thousand and eighty five soldiers were sacrificed. More than 194 pieces of armour, 92 pieces of other military hardware, 9 MiG combat aircraft and 9 helicopters of Russian origin had been destroyed. In stark comparison 3 Olifant tanks, 5 Ratel infantry fighting vehicles, 5 other varieties, 1 Bosbok light reconnaissance aircraft and 2 Mirage combat aircraft of the SADF had been destroyed. These vast quantified differences were mind boggling and the reasons for this beg to be explained. The battles surrounding Cuito Cuanavale and its costly proceeds need to be remembered in a similar way as ANZAC is celebrated. These battles mark you, had all contributed to better forms of peace.
- On 1 October 2013 Abel Esterhuyse and I had the privilege to meet SAMVOA Veteran Gavin Murphy, who is also a member of the Australian Defence Force. He took me and Abel on a tour to show us the wonders of Canberra, which included the historical Royal Military College Duntroon and the ANZAC and Boer Memorials. During the trip Gavin related to us that one of his close friends was killed in an Eland-90 armoured car next to him during the Battle of Ebo in Angola during Operation Savannah in 1975. A day later I encountered Veteran Kevin Bowden who had been an ops medic in the same battle. I had the privilege of sharing with them the recent passing away of George Kruys who was their commander during the said battle and for whom they had great respect. I had the honour to sit next to Gavin and his wife Bev during the formal mess dinner in Brisbane on 19 October 2013. The advent of Operation Savannah had touched Gavin and Kevin deeply in the remembrance thereof and their friends who had fallen. However, they assuredly also remembered and rejoiced in the good things.
- On 2 October 2013 I was invited to dinner in Canberra by Jan Marais-van Vuuren and his wife Janine. Now here is another interesting connection.
Jan told me about one of his family members living in South Africa who was involved in an ambush close to Tsintsabis during Operation Yahoo on a fateful 15 April 1982, wherein eight of our soldiers were killed and a small number wounded. It was about his nephew Jan de Villiers who had escaped miraculously from the ambush and still has his bloodied and diesel smeared fatigues, which he keeps in remembrance.
Captain Jan Malan was the commander of Alpha Company at the time under my command as a fully fledged sub-unit of 61 Mechanised Battalion Group. Lieutenant Hubrecht van Dalsen, a SAMVOA veteran from Queensland, was the second-in-command. During the ambush sprung by SWAPO more than seven rocket propelled grenades penetrated the Ratel, which started burning profusely in an instant. It was out of this cauldron of fire that Rifleman Jan de Villiers escaped to safety. This incident was etched in our minds forever and I know from my discussions later on with Hubrecht that the moment had touched him deeply; as it did so to all of us. My privilege was to put in an effort to re-unite all these roll-players in remembrance and perhaps for all of us to reach a measure of closure. In doing so another close family member living in South Africa, also named Jan Marais, participated in the proceeding. Jan as a 61 Mech veteran participated in Operation Sceptic in June 1980.
The connectivity of all of this to me was mind boggling; was this mere coincidence, or was it something else? Even more so that people like Jan Malan, Hubrecht van Dalsen and me remained close friends until today. Many of us find consolation in organisations such as the 61 Mech Veteran’s Association and SAMVOA as former brothers in arms. My appreciation is extended to SAMVOA and people like Hubrecht van Dalsen, Jan Canberra, Jan Sceptic, Jan Yahoo and Jan Malan that we could share this moment in remembrance.
- Then there was the ambush in Sydney on Thursday 3 October 2013 with the merry clan of Kevin Bowden of New South Wales. Take note: An ambush is a surprise attack on a moving enemy from a hidden position – ambush site Blue Gum Hotel Waitara.
It was another unforgettable moment in remembrance. There I met Paratrooper Nick Laubscher who had travelled more than 300 km to be with us. He had participated with me and 61 Mech in Operation Protea in August 1981. Soon after midnight we threw smoke and withdrew with some minor casualties incurred.
Then later on I bumped into Paratrooper Chris Beath during the formal mess dinner on Saturday 5 October 2013 in Perth, another veteran of Operation Protea encountered. Their highly respected Company Commander who served with 61 Mech at the time was Paratrooper Captain Pale van der Walt, who is still a good friend of mine today. Pale had only recently returned to Pretoria from Afghanistan where he had managed a private security company. In the typical De Vries fashion I asked Kevin Bowden and Garth Pienaar to help me facilitate the process to re-unite our two paratroopers with Pale van der Walt. Airborne! What the hell they were my mechanised paratroopers!
- During the above-mentioned formal mess dinner John McCrum and his wife Jacqui sat just across from me and Henriette. We could reminisce about an eventful day in October 1987 during Operation Modular, when I had sent their combat team under command of Captain Dawid Lötter to save a 155 mm G-5 Battery from the enemy’s harm. A marauding FAPLA Battalion armed with T-55 tanks were halted just in time as they were repelled a mere 5 km from the gun position. We could talk about this event and the running fight which ensued far into the night and the burning vehicles of the enemy. On 8 October John had the opportunity to tell his story to a gathering of SAMVOA stalwarts at the RSL Club in Belmont.
- Here is another short story that connects me and Henriette to Australia and SAMVOA. As you well know by now our daughter Melanie, her husband Jason Boschin and two bouncing girls Elysia (3) and Danica (2), reside in Perth. Both the latter two are qualified to jump off fridges. Garth Pienaar and I had press-ganged Jason to join SAMVOA before I reached the western shore on 27 September – I had snared my first recruit for SAMVOA and felt proud of it. There is however another angle to this story.
I had met Henriette at the operational base of 61 Mech at Omuthiya in November 1982, whilst I still commanded that regiment (die koeël was toe deur die kerk en my Ratel – similar to a heat seeking missile chewing through your armour). She had accompanied Ms. Ristie Viljoen, wife of General Constand Viljoen, on one of those typical border visits, which fortunately for me included 61 Mech – that was it. We were married in Postmasburg in May as I was then serving at the Army Battle School at Lohatlha. However, here is the crux of my story as it relates to Australia, Melanie, Jason, Elysia and Danica – as they have escaped and are bloody-well full blown Aussies now!
During Operation Protea in 1981 we of 61 Mech were very busy on the western side of the Cunene River, after the capturing of Humbe, making sure that the Angolan-Cuban garrison at Cahama and points north did not send any reinforcements eastwards. To the east of the river Commandant Johann Dippenaar, with Battle Group 20, was heavily engaged in subduing a number of heavily defended strong points around Xangongo. During the mopping-up operation on 25 August one of his officers, namely Captain Louis Harmse of 1 SAI, was shot and killed, leaving his three-month-old daughter Melanie… and his widow, Henriette (née de Lange) behind. So little Melanie never had a fighting chance of getting to know her biological father, but I adopted her immediately after Henriette and I was married and have done my best to stand in for Louis.
Melanie is now happily married to Jason Boschin, also a war orphan – when he was a small child his father was killed in action while serving in the Selous Scouts during the Rhodesian bush war. They now live in Clarkson Western Australia with my two new recruits Elysia and Danica.
In this way Henriette and I sincerely hope that there are more children like Melanie and Jason who had lost their parents in a war but still managed to find true happiness as they did. And that also applies to children like mine, from military families who went through the stresses and strains of the challenging times which are still fresh in our memories.
What was interesting to me was that Jason could immediately relate to the members of the Rhodesian Association, who attended Garth Pienaar’s formal mess dinner in Perth on 5 October. In a sense so could I, because in 1979/80 I was seconded for four months to command Task Force X-Ray during Operation Bowler in southeast Rhodesia – the Sengwe Tribal Trust Land – we operated in Rhodesian camouflage and I wore their insignia of a lieutenant colonel. In this way I had become connected to Jason and the Australian-Rhodies as well. The Rhodesian veterans told Jason that they would help him find out the truth about how his father had been killed in action and about acquiring the medals he earned. To me all of this and how it came about was amazing.
- Here follows my last story concerning connectivity. I was re-acquainted with a good friend of mine from our Border Was era during the formal mess dinner in Perth on 5 October. His name is Herman van Onselen. I introduced him and his wife to Henriette, Jason and Melanie. Soon after our return to Dubai on Saturday 26 October Melanie notified me that Herman had been involved in a serious motorcycle accident with severe injuries sustained to his left calf and chest cavity. The senior paramedic on the scene, which had arrived by helicopter, was Jason Boschin – Herman and Jason recognised each other instantly. Herman could be flown to the trauma unit of the Royal Perth Hospital in the care of Jason. I immediately sent a situation report to Tony Macquet and Garth Pienaar and informed them about the incident. Was this another mere coincidence or something more divine?
Early on the morning of the 30th of October I received the following reassuring email from Veteran Garth Pienaar in Perth:
It is with regret that I inform you that Veteran Herman van Onselen was involved in a motorcycle accident on Saturday and that he is currently in the Trauma Unit of Royal Perth Hospital.
I saw him on Sunday afternoon and am pleased to report that he is in high spirits and on the road to recovery. Amazingly, the paramedic that attended to him was none other than Veteran Jason Boschin, General Roland de Vries’ son in law, so Herman was in good hands, Jason having recognised Herman from our Mess Dinner earlier in the month.
On behalf of us all, we wish Herman a speedy and full recovery”.
INTIMACY IS AT THE HEART – THANKS FOR TOUCHING OUR SOULS
To the likes of Roland and Henriette SAMVOA had created some magical moments for us. I therefore needed to share it with you as I did in my chronicle above!
To bring this part of the script to a fitting closure: During the formal dinner on the 5th of October 2013 at the RSL Club in Belmont, Perth Western Australia, I asked the following question during my address: What is it that connects the Eucalyptus forests of Australia to the sea shore and to those found in South Africa, the ordinary crab to the crayfish, Australia to South Africa and our veterans to each other…?
The answer surely is to be found in the patterns which connect us, the patterns of learning and of fellowship which finds in us: Common bonds of interdependence, mutual interests, interlocking contributions and simple joy through the kinships formed by organisations such as SAMVOA.
I thought by myself that the Dear Lord works in strange ways to show us that we are….after all human and dependent on each other…that there truly exists a common bond of interdependence amongst us.
Such were the true values imposed on me and Henriette during our recent visit to Australia through interaction with SAMVOA – intimacy I believe is at the heart of competence. To my mind maintaining a kinship such as SAMVOA and revelling in the magical patterns and connections bestowed on us in life necessarily contributes to the quality of living. Thanks SAMVOA for teaching us these simple traits of life once again and for touching our souls.
Therefore, to view how SAMVOA continuously forges their relationships amongst their members and with other similar veteran’s organisations was commendable: Such as with the other South African associations in South Africa and elsewhere; and in Australia with organisations such as the Australian Defence Force, the RSL, the SAS Association, the Rhodesian Association, the Airborne Association and local military historical societies.
There is after all purpose and vigour in our lives and in all of the above-mentioned get-up-and-go happenings that we do for the pure fun thereof in communion. Strength lies in mobility and faith!
Keep up the good work SAMVOA; you are setting a wonderful example to all of us in building bridges and in fostering remarkable relationships for the benefit of mankind.
CLOSURE – WORDS OF APPRECIATION FROM ROLAND AND HENRIETTE
We are back in Dubai on completion of our memorable visit to our family in Perth (Melanie, Jason and our small grandchildren Elysia and Danica) and the remarkable people of SAMVOA. We had encountered former as well as new-found friends in Perth, Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. We will be returning to South Africa in June 2014. We will be returning to Australia at regular intervals!
We will never forget you. You had verified to us, irrevocably so, not only your courage but sense of belonging and loyalty towards Australia and to your families and friends left behind in South Africa as well. You affirmed this by the toasts you proposed during your formal mess dinners all over Australia during the memorable month of October 2013:
- The ode by the Master at Arms: “At the going down of the sun we will remember them….”!
- “Her Majesty, the Queen”.
- “Our guests: may they come again”.
- “South Africa, the Mother Country, wishing her peace”.
- Fallen comrades, we will remember them”.
On 11 October 2013, at the 8th Annual formal mess dinner in Melbourne, Tony Macquet on behalf of SAMVOA presented me with the South African Service Cross. I shall wear this medal with honour in recognition to all those service men and women who have given valued service to the Republic of South Africa during hostilities and in peacetime and whose services in many instances have gone unrecognised. Our sons and daughters were warriors and they still are! Everyone counted!
On the 11th of October 2013 I was bestowed honorary life membership as a soldier by my fellow brothers in arms of SAMVOA. What could I say, but to express my appreciation and to affirm that I will do my utmost to support them in all their endeavours? It was therefore a great privilege that I could sit down with Tony Macquet and a few members of SAMVOA’s guiding coalition to map out the future direction of an organisation I now belong to. An organisation, highly respected and viable and which provides a haven for all our members who are treated with dignity and respect. As such SAMVOA remains highly sought after as a preferred veteran’s organisation for members who have served South Africa.
Thank you RSL for caring for our South African Veterans and their families in Australia!
Thus ended a memorable journey shared by me and Henriette in the companionship of remarkable people, who to us have become a family of sorts. We entrust our children in Perth to SAMVOA.
Sips of whiskey now and then from the silver hip-flask given to me by the Queenslanders at their formal dinner in Brisbane on 19 October 2013 will return all of you to memory ever so often! Including the memory of parachute rolls performed from the chairs after a relaxing mess dinner in close companionship – shoulders round, feet together, watch the ground!
In conclusion: This is a Charlie….Charlie Call in signaller’s terms to all our friends out there in Australia. Thank you for the purchasing of so many books entitled ‘Eye of the Firestorm’ and that I could personally inscribe and sign those for you; above all that we could share many of the life stories embedded in its pages.
Thank you once again for an unforgettable adventure down under of the highest order!
Henriette and I are marching ready!
Roland de Vries
United Arab Emirates, Dubai
3 November 2013